Goa’s Golden Jubilee

On the 50th anniversary of India’s annexation of Goa, a few existential anxieties still preoccupy the locals

Portuguese prisoners of war, captured during the invasion of Goa by Indian military forces, are lined up at military barracks in Panaji on 28 December 1961. AP PHOTO
01 December, 2011

EXACTLY 50 YEARS AGO, world attention pivoted to focus on Goa and the 451-year-old Estado Português da Índia, the last remaining colonial possession on the subcontinent.

From the point of view of the Indian Union, the lingering European presence had become a prestige issue that demanded quick resolution—“just a pimple on the face of India”, in Nehru’s infelicitous phrase. Eventually, as 1961 drew to a close, the Indian prime minister had had enough. To the international press, he declared, “Continuance of Goa under Portuguese rule is an impossibility.”

But the Portuguese had no intention of budging. António de Oliveira Salazar, the arch-conservative dictator who had comfortably held power for almost three decades, was confident he could stave off an invasion by getting the US and other Western countries to back an audacious plan for NATO to set up a military and naval base of operations in Goa.

Salazar sent a series of frantic messages to Manuel António Vassalo e Silva, the last governor-general of the Estado Português da Índia, demanding that his (mainly African-Portuguese) troops fight to the last man—a suicide mission that he believed would buy enough time for Portugal to rally international support against the Indian invasion that everyone knew was coming. On 14 December 1961, Salazar wrote:

You understand the bitterness with which I send you this message. It is horrible to think that this may mean total sacrifice, but I believe that sacrifice is the only way for us to keep up to the highest traditions and provide service to the future of the Nation. Do not expect the possibility of truce or of Portuguese prisoners, as there will be no surrender rendered because I feel that our soldiers and sailors can be either victorious or dead. These words could, by their seriousness, be directed only to a soldier of higher duties fully prepared to fulfill them. God will not allow you to be the last Governor of the State of India.

Just four days later, under the command of Air Vice Marshal Erlic Wilmot Pinto (himself a Goan), the Indian aerial bombardment of Dabolim airport commenced.

By 10 pm on 18 December 1961, the Portuguese high command—which had wisely ignored Salazar’s insane instructions—was already negotiating total surrender. The next morning, the Indian Army marched into Panaji without facing any resistance, and promptly raised the Indian tricolour above the fabled Palacio de Idalçao, once the seat of power for the colonial administration of the entire Portuguese maritime empire, from Mozambique to Malacca.

Vassalo e Silva, who had also ignored Salazar’s crazed order to comprehensively destroy the infrastructure of the state, was quickly taken into Indian custody, and eventually returned to Portugal in disgrace. The annexation of Goa was complete.

A storm of protest was then raised at the United Nations Security Council, where a resolution condemning India was vetoed at the last minute by the Soviet Union. But the military solution to Goa’s plight also came in for severe criticism from many prominent Indians, including ardent nationalists like the Goan painter FN Souza. The brilliant Goan writer Dom Moraes even surrendered his Indian passport in a kind of symbolic protest—not about Goa joining the Indian Union (which he supported) but about the way it had happened. Looking back, in his Never at Home: An Autobiography (1994), Moraes wrote:

Another reason for the sudden movement of troops was that KV Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister of India, and one of Nehru’s pets, was at the time in a very bad odour. Chinese attacks on Indian patrols and border-posts in 1959, a precursor to full-scale hostilities in 1962, had found the military entirely unprepared, and this had been blamed wholly on him. At one point all three chiefs-of-staff had resigned in protest against his attitude. Krishna Menon was about to stand for election, and a victory in Goa, which was predictable, would raise him in public esteem. So the Indian Army went in, and conquered.

As Moraes instinctively gathered, the specific circumstances of annexation were a disaster for Goans. Even though the majority of the populace had long been vehemently in favour of joining the Indian Union (as the Portuguese had themselves found in surveys prior to 1961), the territory was still subjected to a humiliating military occupation in the wake of annexation, which continued the colonial experience of being ruled from a distant centre, with local interests and concerns marginalised to favour those of the conqueror.

Westernised Goans found themselves treated with suspicion by equally Westernised Delhiwalas. Their complex culture and identity became slurred as insufficiently Indian in the popular mainstream imagination, an absurd accusation that still rankles deeply.

It remains a lasting failure of the Indian intelligentsia that it has never come to terms with Goan history, culture and identity, consistently preferring cartoonish stereotypes that do not disturb its cherished narratives.

It is a shame that simple facts need to be repeated even 50 years on, but here we go. First, it must be understood that Goa had a different colonial experience from the rest of the country; Portuguese rule had little in common with the British Raj.

Second, by the 16th century, Goa had exploded into the richest trading port the world had ever known, the centre piece of a truly global empire that extended from Brazil to Timor to Aden and back to Lisbon; Goans were profoundly globalised centuries before the first British merchant showed up in the subcontinent. (In fact, the British East India Company was formed in response to a series of letters by Thomas Stephens, an English Jesuit who marvelled at the riches of Portuguese Goa.)

Third, and most essential, the Portuguese ability to project power overseas had almost entirely withered by the beginning of the 19th century; from that point onwards until 1961, the Goans themselves ran rampant across the Portuguese empire.

Hindu financiers and trading houses (like the Mhamai Kamats) kept the Portuguese governors of Goa on a leash for centuries, rendering them utterly incapable of action without their assent. Other Goans fanned out across the subcontinent and throughout the Portuguese and British empires seeking employment, playing a disproportionately massive role in the building of Karachi, Rangoon, Nairobi, Maputo and countless other colonial cities. With global awareness, a new self-confidence and an increasingly free hand at home, the unique ‘Indo-Latin’ cultural expressions that we now recognise as iconically Goan began to flower. But none of this was understood by the Indian occupiers in 1961.

Today, as a state within the Indian Union, Goa occupies the top echelon in every single available index of economic and human development, or quality of life. And India and Portugal exhibit perhaps the warmest postcolonial relationship in world history; Lisbon votes along with Indian interests in international fora with almost embarrassing assiduousness. So it is easy to forget that the decades following 1961 have involved repeated existential fights which have sorely tested local solidarity and reserves of strength.

First, Goans were told we were merely temporarily disoriented Maharashtrians—it took a vast agitation and a historic opinion poll to disabuse the rest of the country of that notion.

Then, we were informed that Konkani (provably older than Marathi) was just a creolised dialect, and again it took vast agitation, even violence, for Delhi to recognise its legitimacy and rightfully enshrine our mother tongue as Goa’s official language.

More recently, Goa’s outstandingly disgraceful political and economic elites colluded with the Centre to try to impose an outrageous Regional Plan that would have permanently altered the land use, character and identity of Goa. Widespread agitations have fended off the threat for the time being, but Goans live with tremendous anxiety, convinced that New Delhi is not merely indifferent to their interests, but actively wishes to “change the facts on the ground” to render the Goans a powerless minority in their own homeland.

Is this paranoia? Perhaps. But we may not have to wait 50 more years to determine the answer.